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The Last Jeffersonian

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By:Bill Kauffman | June 05, 2019
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From the December 1990 issue of Chronicles.

Let Vermont State Senator John McClaughry describe himself (with what he calls "a notorious Ozark accent"): "I am a 1700's Virginia republican, an 1800 Tertium Quid, an 1830's Loco Foco, an 1850's Republican, an 1890's Western progressive, a 1930's agrarian distributist, and today a plain old decentralist agrarian Reaganaut." It makes perfect sense. Alas, no one gets it.

John McClaughry was born in Paris, Illinois, of a border-state family that "made the same pilgrimage that Lincoln's did." He's from Vachel Lindsay country, and like that sad vagabond poet he knows that the American redemption must start in the small towns:

O you who lose the art of hope.

Whose temples seem to shrine a lie,

Whose sidewalks are but stones of fear.

Who weep that Liberty must die,

Turn to the little prairie towns.

Your higher hope shall yet begin.

The wanderlust seized young McClaughry; like many tribunes of rootedness, he was itinerant for a time. He rode the rails west and picked up the hobo name of "Feather River John."

In 1963 he moved to northern Vermont, bewitched by the gods of its hills. He built himself a log cabin and raised a family and plunged into politics, serving in the Vermont House and preaching a Jeffersonian gospel of dispersed power, strong communities, and civic responsibility. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan in the late 70's and joined the White House policy staff when came the millennium.

But a Loco Foco is brave and true, and never lubricious enough to slide through the corridors of power. McClaughry was almost fired from his White House job in March 1981 when he flew home in midweek to preside over the Kirby, Vermont, town meeting. He was fount of fresh, unorthodox ideas, the kind that make ambitious careerists write you off as a kook. "My suggestion that we appoint America's most respected Indian elder as the U.S. representative on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, with no instructions but to speak plainly about justice for the oppressed nations throughout the world, was greeted in Foggy Bottom as evidence of advanced insanity on my part," he remembers.

So he took the honorable route, the road less and less traveled: he quit. Yankee stubbornness, an intransigent loyalty to principle, motivated McClaughry. Thoreau's guidance is relevant: "If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, 'But what shall I do?' my answer is, 'If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.'"

He went home and got elected to the State Senate on an Old (circa 1798) Republican platform. Though initially pegged as a wild man, a troglodyte, an opponent of the 20th century, he has won grudging plaudits for his wit, hard work, and seriousness of purpose in defense of a political creed that elsewheres goes unchampioned. And he has discovered just how hard a sell Jeffersonianism has become in an America in which nationalism has eclipsed patriotism, and men care more about Madonna than they do the tramp next door.

Vermont is a curious state, politically. Frugal, flinty Yankees are scarce in Montpelier; "woodchucks," as natives are derisively called, are being overrun by those whom McClaughry terms "The Pretty People": affluent immigrants from New York City and Boston, transient Arcadians who've done deals and leveraged and arbitraged and still love the City—Sunday Times in bed, MOMA in the aft, a stroll through the Village at dusk—and want to make Vermont as pretty, quaint, and utterly lifeless as a picture postcard. (Over the York border a similar conflict simmers in the Adirondack Mountains, where baseball-capped natives are losing their home ground to the Manhattan summer crowd, with its $400,000 condos and godawful accents and imperious citified demeanors.)

But unlike New York, Vermont hums with discourse. Dissidents are given a respectful hearing. Socialist Bernie Sanders has a shot at winning a seat in Congress this fall. A Green Party, gloriously disorganized, is aborning, inspired by the Burlington anarchist Murray Bookchin. And a populist political scientist (!?!) named Frank Bryan, a scholar of rural governance, is the state's premier tub-thumping orator, if not kin to William Jennings then the Green Mountain State's closest approximation.

Frank Bryan and John McClaughry are close if fractious friends, and they collaborated to write The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (Chelsea Green, 1989), a blueprint for radical restructuring of state government. Proceeding from "values that are libertarian in the face of authority, decentralist in the face of giantism, and communal among our townspeople," they proposed to strip Montpelier of its accumulated powers, reducing it to the "protector of the environment and guarantor of basic civil rights and liberties."

Responsibility for welfare, education, and road maintenance would devolve to "shires," new units of government resembling counties. The shires would be small—average population ten thousand—and extremely democratic: "reeves," or shire legislators, would represent constituencies of about two hundred people. Shires would not be mere units of administration; they would actually make policy. A liberal Burlington shire, for example, might spend prodigally for welfare, while rural shires opted for Coolidgean parsimony.

With "geography as cocoon and history as memory," Vermont is an ideal site for the rebirth of grass-roots democracy. Its population is scattered amongst 246 small towns steeped in that noble New England tradition, the town meeting. Industrialism, and the dependence it breeds, passed Vermont by. The percentage of self-employed Vermonters is twice the national average; small, locally owned businesses and dairy farms predominate.

(Although the Tennessee Agrarian Donald Davidson once marveled at this "land to which God had given a monopoly of all things good and precise," Vermont is not paradisiacal, and no one knows this better than its neighbor, Upper New York. People on our side of the border are friendlier and less pretentious. Our natives are not as sullen; our newcomers are not as uppity. Our maple syrup tastes better. Etc.)

The Vermont Papers was radical and reactionary, as any modern expression of the Spirit of '76 is bound to be. Its vision of men and women as citizens—rooted, community-minded people who enjoy their liberty but are ever mindful of their obligations to neighbors and the less-fortunate—seems a charming anachronism in this rootless age. So, too, its celebration of local pride and healthy parochialism.

But populist anger also infuses the book: resentment against The Pretty People and those who disparage ordinary, undegreed Vermonters. McClaughry confesses to "a natural animosity toward urbanism," and that bias has led some reviewers to conclude, in McClaughry's words, that "these guys are living in a dreamworld of hobbits in the back country." They do not address the maladies that the TV newsmen tell us really matter: AIDS, the homeless. South Africa, drug dealers bumping each other off. Serious problems, to be sure, but irrelevancies to the tens of millions of Americans who live in small towns and rural communities, who are fast becoming subjects of metropolitan rulers, serfs of large distant corporations.

Ironically, Vermont reviews of The Vermont Papers have generally been less perceptive than notices in national publications. The problem is McClaughry's reputation. "The mere mention of this man's name brought foam to the mouths of liberals," a Vermont reporter has written.

McClaughry's failure to reach left decentralists recalls the only other politician, in memory, to peddle such a thorough and plausible plan for reform: Norman Mailer. Brooklyn's favorite fugging son, in his 1969 Democratic primary campaign for Gotham's mayoralty, proposed the virtual abolition of New York City's government and the devolution of power to the neighborhoods, along the lines of Jefferson's ward republic scheme. Mailer called himself a "left conservative," but no one to the right of Greenwich Village ever listened, and he lost badly.

The McClaughry-Mailer parallel experiences are a sobering lesson to decentralists. Mailer was right on every important issue—he even opposed fluoridation of the water supply—but Manhattan's tuxedoed conservatives gave him nothing but sneers. (He wrote novels containing swear words, don't you know, and said nice things about the Black Panthers' demand for Harlem control of Harlem schools.)

McClaughry, despite his Greenish hue, his communitarian language, his populist attacks on concentrated wealth, is a bête noire to the Vermont left. Like Mailer, his failure to break through the liberal-conservative gossamer is due to style. He likes country and western music. He uses "Captive Nations" in conversation. He twits the gay rights movement.

But dammit, the man has something to say, and if Jeffersonianism is ever going to be resurgent in our America John McClaughry's the likeliest standard-bearer. He's a homespun populist but no demagogue; he's an intellectual fluent in the vernacular of American politics; he's a Northern Agrarian, an admirer of both the Virginia planter-statesmen and the Vermonters who defied the Fugitive Slave Law. He loves history, lives and breathes it; Ethan Allen is very real to him.

McClaughry has portraits of his heroes on the wall: Jefferson, of course, and John Taylor of Caroline and Fighting Bob LaFollette and Robert Taft and his old boss Reagan. He is a good friend of Green writer-activist Kirkpatrick Sale, and is undoubtably the only Reaganite ever to serve on the board of directors of the E.F. Schumacher Society. He knows that the wisemen of 20th-century politics are buried in the footnotes: Amos Pinchot, Burton K. Wheeler, Herbert Agar, and the unheeded prophets who wrote I'll Take My Stand and Who Owns America?.

He is also fond of ex-Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, who with his classic motto, "No More Bullshit," enlivened the 1972 and '76 Democratic presidential primaries. McClaughry's requiem for Harris's career serves, too, as a self-assessment: "Fred is an early 1900's Populist who's been propelled forward in time with all the talents that would have made him a contender in 1916, but now, no one gets what he's talking about."

Harris never figured out how to get his message across. Maybe McClaughry won't, either. After McClaughry's losing primary campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1982, his buddy Frank Bryan described the hurdle that the candidate hadn't leaped: "How, with limited funds, to articulate his views to an electorate that does not possess the necessary concepts or language?"

Power to the Shires! has not caught on as a battle cry in Vermont yet, but there are favorable auguries. The Vermont Papers was enthusiastically reviewed in the pages of the Nation and National Review; the New Age bellwether New Options gave it lavish front-page treatment. On the home front, Bryan and McClaughry spearheaded a Republican/Green Party onslaught that defeated Governor Kunin's land-use master plan.

A Jeffersonian renaissance in Vermont would be a wonderful way to usher out our bloody century. But even if The Pretty People pot the woodchucks once and for all, keep an eye on John McClaughry. He is, handsdown, the most interesting politician in America; his way, the Ethan Allen-Loco Foco-Prairie Populist way, lies liberty, community, and the genius of the Old Republic.

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